Book Review: What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival

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‘What Doesn’t Kill You,’ is an anthology of short stories and a couple of philosophical essays centred on a single theme: adversity.

Its contributors are authors, journalists and figures from the British media, and the topics it covers are broad.

I enjoyed reading ‘What Doesn’t Kill You,’ for a number of reasons but not for the ones I was expecting. If you love – as I do – to leaf through the overcoming of hardship – the long-earned joyful walk to all kinds of personal victories – then this may not be the book for you.

This anthology, travels, instead – to borrow a term from Pilgrim’s Progress – to a series of  ‘sloughs of despond,’ personal difficulties which its writers have experienced and then invites us to take a look around. This may sound bleak – and many of the tales here are predictably dark – but there is also something deeply connecting in reading of another person’s ‘Struggle’, ‘Self’ and ‘Striving’ (the titles of each section of this anthology) without necessarily learning of their happy ending.

Indeed, despite the occasional musings on personal transformation and some beautiful philosophical insights on what it means to be human (the elliptical title of the anthology is borrowed from Nietzsche), this anthology could not be classed  as ‘uplift lit.’ Healing, or even transcendence of past pain is not the focus of this collection.

This said, the writing (and editing by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska) is fabulous. There are  breathtaking lines to take away – language which takes us closer to what it feels like when life’s sharpness moves us to the edge.

The exquisite surrealism of Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Three Wise Women’ is a huge treat –

‘I sat in train carriages watching for a far-flung white calla lily to manifest from a rip in a seat.’

Okojie’s storytelling is utterly compelling – poetic and precise – and her descriptions of ‘winter’ searing in the way which they evoke the alienation of an anxious mind.

Alex Christophi’s piece, which is both of the mind and rooted in the flesh, takes us through the recreation of memory and its accompanying thoughts. His words on coming back to present stillness are arresting:

‘…when they finally stop running, they can actually feel the world spinning.’

 

The meditations on ‘disappearance’ which appeared throughout this anthology were also a thrill to read:

In Ed Mitchell’s story of alcohol addiction, ‘Not Wasted’ where he describes how he went from an affluent lifestyle as a television presenter to living on the streets of Hove, he writes:

‘I disappeared for a year: a sea front ghost.’

‘A Disappearing Act’ by Kate Leaver is a moving account of overcoming an eating disorder, clear-sighted on what it meant to withdraw from ‘the act of living my life’. She writes:

‘It was my best effort to vanish.’

And I particularly liked Hazel Gale’s exploration of leaving one’s own body in ‘The Last Fight’. Her disappearance (and later re-appearance) in her own physical reality, is the story of reclaiming her personhood:

‘What I’d been calling the Self was forged solely of what I thought was required of me by the Other.’

Memory’s disappearance is acutely studied in Emily Reynold’s ‘My Unremembered Life’:

‘Trauma simultaneously erases memory and rewrites it,’

while Elitsa Dermendzhiyska’s tale of using economic theory to try to make uncertainty vanish from her daily life, lured by the ‘promise of an underlying order’ contains great beauty in its truth and vulnerability.

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Peppered throughout this collection are nuggets of inspiration, on our personal agency in not just surviving adversity, but the ways in which we might exist in its wake:

‘If I don’t want to go back to prison,’ writes Cathy Rentzenbrink, on tending to herself sensitively in recovery from PTSD, ‘I have to make sure I keep the conditions of my bail.’ and for each of these writers – and for many of us – this keeping out of the ‘prison’ of self-protective suffering might look quite different.

Ben Saunders explores the futility of ‘striving’ in the last section of the anthology, through his piece ‘A Very Long Walk in a Very Cold Place.’ His is a gripping real-life adventure to the North Pole full of grit and grimness, where the true prize cannot be gained externally.

Nature is also at the forefront of A.J. Ashworth’s ‘Eight.’ Facts and images of the sun weave beguilingly through this powerful account of living with panic attacks.

The stories in ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ neither sugarcoat nor glamourize the difficulties encountered by its authors. There is courage in these very personal tales, many as raw as the pain they’ve endured.

Rory Bremner’s essay is a beautiful description of living life with ADHD, both sensible in its advice to those experiencing similar, and celebratory of the wealth of expression he feels the condition has brought him. His refusal to see ADHD as a problem, instead as a part of himself to be loved, is key to the way that he chooses to live.

In his essay ‘No Cure For Life,’ Julian Baggini takes a characteristically rationalist approach to suffering, shunning the notion of the ‘happy ending’ sold to us by self-help evangelists. He observes the uneven way in which life’s slings and arrows appear to be handed out, and seems to underscore some of the thoughts of M. Scott Peck in his seminal book, The Road Less Travelled:

‘Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.’ 

However in Peck’s book he goes on to say:

‘It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.’

While ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ isn’t generally about transcending the adversity it portrays – it reads more as a panorama of lived experience –  the gems contained within make it well-worth a look.

I loved the style of Lily Bailey’s ‘The Lily Show’ and found her stream of consciousness sentences a brilliant vehicle into the hellish reality she employs to keep her safe.

‘Maybe…they’ll smash through the set walls and rescue me..’

This is as real an account of mental illness and its attendant isolation that I have ever read.

But what I loved most about ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ is that it points to other books as safe crossings and scaffolds when life gets tricky. There are some great book recommendations here – from JD Salinger to Clarissa Pinkola Estés – so many of the writers in this anthology finding solace in the printed page.

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It has indeed been my own experience that there is a deep hopefulness in the occupation of reading – in seeing the story of another played out and repurposed purely for our benefit – which can be like a hand-hold through life’s sometime rough terrain.

‘Reading was, as ever, an ally in taking my mind away from itself,’

writes Cathy Rentzenbrink.

And it is this which makes ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’, a valuable book shelf addition; each of these 15 pieces – while simultaneously distracting us – draws us closer to our own humanity, especially in this time of societal introspection.

It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us,’ writes David Whyte at the start of the anthology, and in celebrating the beauty and plurality of each of these writers’ challenging life experiences, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ empowers us to find our own possible steps when life feels like a struggle.

 

What Doesn’t Kill You is published by Unbound, available to purchase here (among other outlets) from 11th June 2020. 

This blog recommends pairing this book with the 1978 classic, The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck, a book about fulfillment based on the author’s experiences as a psychiatrist and as a person.

I review books I’ve loved. All views expressed in my posts are my own. This blog is not affiliated to any other individual, company or advertisement.

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Your comments as always are welcome…

 

 

A tale from Colombia: the power of owning your story

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The Colombia of my imagination has tropical rhythms over middle eastern chords. Poetry. Impenetrable jungle, a generosity of smiles. Although I have never visited the country itself. All of this I learned from friends and songs and stories.

Last week I came across the real Colombia of the 1980s as experienced by a writer who spent her childhood there.

As a girl in England, my first school friend was from North America. Long ponytails, kind eyes, we met when we were four or five. I loved her because she wasn’t like the folk I knew. She spoke with vowels unknown and when she did a handstand, she called it by another name.

Like many in our university town, her family stayed a year. And then they moved to South America.

Last month I found a letter she sent me in 1981. When I looked online I discovered that thirty years on, my friend Shelley Hundley had written and published a book called A Cry for Justice.

I read it in two sittings.

There are few works of literature that have made me reflect so. Examining her own history and faith, Shelley has managed to somehow hold, ‘the mirror up to nature’.*

Her book describes that when she was a child, living in Medellín, between the age of six and ten, a minister known to her family routinely abused her, then left her silenced by the burden of his crimes.

She lost her faith, the world became a place from which she hid. Later on, she planned to take her life.

Shelley’s is a book about trauma and the healing which she found through re-embracing her religious faith. Her story-telling is compelling. The book, both page-turner – for the prose flows effortlessly – and an uneasy read.

As if Shelley’s own pain were not enough, Medellín in the eighties was a dangerous place to be a child. Shelley describes herself as ‘a gringa-paisa, an American by blood but a Colombian by birth.’ At the hands of Pablo Escobar and his ilk, Colombian cities in the 1980s were part war-zones where children did the normal things: play and learn and go to church but Shelley also saw shootings, robbery, casual violence, lockdowns.

Shelley’s descriptions of the society of her childhood reminded me of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the sense of something once beautiful, decayed.

Later at a North American college, filled with the rage of a knowledge unspeakable, Shelley embodied the young prince’s quandary: ‘To be or not to be’. But it was at this time that her life began to slowly turn, through therapy, scripture and prayer, from angry existence to a cathedral of love.

This book is, without a doubt, an invitation to the message of Jesus Christ and yet, I wonder whether whoever reads it, from whichever faith or background, may be strengthened by its integrity. Shelley rejects modern social ‘relativism’ in favour of God as unique Judge, liberator of the human from ego-based judgement, Opener of a space from which to love.

Filled with light, Shelley’s tale starts with survival which becomes thriving and culminates in complete transcendence of her past.

Sometimes a book is enough to throw open a window on a place we’ve never seen. Driving in Muscat last week with Shelley’s words still inside my head, I listened to an interview with Colombian author Laura Restrepo, award-winning writer of the novel, Delirio, also set in 1980s Medellín.

When asked how Colombian young people might approach the act of writing she said:

You know people in Colombia… it seems like everyone is writing, poetry, essays, novels, it seems like a very intelligent and brave way of understanding what’s going on with us. There’s plenty of fine literature in Colombia, great writers all over the place. It’s like a process of healing that the country is going through by telling its own story once and again and again… Go on and write your stuff, whatever you want to write, write.

Owning our past, paragraph by paragraph is for some, the conscious taking back of what was always meant to be ours. When Laura Restrepo and Shelley Hundley chose to write about their lives -the wounds of their society – they tapped into the power to heal themselves -and others – with their pen.

To tell one’s own story in whatever form is an act of courage. Writers who allow the sun to shine on the painful cracks in their personal histories are surely partaking in the communal work of letting in the light.

I’d like to visit Colombia some day. Thanks to Laura Restrepo and my childhood friend, I picture a place where everybody’s writing their own story. I’m trying to imagine the magnificence of that.

Shelley Hundley’s book A Cry for Justice is available here

Laura Restrepo’s novel Delirium is available here

I would love to know which countries you have been inspired to visit via literature. Please, as always, feel free to comment below.

*Prince Hamlet’s advice to the players in the play within the play (Hamlet by William Shakespeare)